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Coal Ash: Both Beneficial and Poisonous?

Coal loaded on a train

In big cities, during the first half of the 20th Century, shoveling coal in winter months was a familiar part of middle class life. As a kid growing up in a residential borough of New York City, I'd see the coal truck pulling up periodically in the alley behind our brick row house. A workman would put a big wooden barrel beneath a hopper on the truck and fill the barrel with coal. He would maneuver the loaded barrel, rim-rolling it through our back yard to the concrete steps down to our basement furnace room, upend the barrel and spill the coal down a long steel chute that fed into a wooden coal bin holding a ton or so. The furnace that heated the whole house stood a couple of steps from the bin. Shoveling coal was a family chore. My father, mother and older brothers would alternate the morning and evening tasks, going down to the basement to stoke the furnace and remove coal ash that collected at the bottom, loading that into ash cans for pickup by a collection truck. I never knew and never even wondered where the ash was taken for disposal. By the time I was big enough to shovel coal myself it was no longer necessary because our family had switched to a more convenient gas heating system.

Today, most people don't personally handle much coal, but this whole country still casually manufactures coal ash in jaw-dropping volumes, much of it residue from big coal burning electrical power plants. And most of us have no clue where the ash goes for disposal. A lot is used for what the industry and government officials call "beneficial" purposes, as an ingredient, for example, in making cement and wallboard. But we generate mountains of ash so large that we can't consume it all. So we dump most of it anyplace it is economically feasible and arguably legal to dump it, sometimes in old played-out coal mines, sometimes in ponds near the power plants that burn it, sometimes in pits that are lined to hold the concentrated heavy metals and other toxins coal ash contains. Sometimes they are unlined, allowing toxins to migrate into ground water supplies.

How dangerous is coal ash? -- that's the big question. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) call it "a toxic stew of heavy metals from arsenic, boron, and chromium to lead, mercury and selenium, and zinc." Carelessly dumped ash is "posing grave risks to human health," says PSR.

Some people long exposed to coal ash, like Debra Trently of Cranberry, Pa, and Merle Wertman of Tamaqua, Pa., are suffering from a rare form of blood cancer. Betty and Lester Kester used to live in Tamaqua, Pa., but are dead now. And there are others, some with the same blood cancer, known to science as polycythemia vera, and some burdened with other unusual and chronic health problems. They have no doubt that coal ash is the culprit.

In Juliette, Georgia, sits one of the nation's biggest coal-burning power plants. Georgia Power, the operator, dumps the ash in an unlined pond the size of a lake. Polycythemia vera is absent in Juliette, at least so far, but so many other cancers and other significant health problems are showing up that 100 people filed a law suit in 2013 against Georgia Power for damages. The company denied responsibility for the health concerns and the suit was then "appropriately" withdrawn, said company spokesman Brian Green.

Brian Adams, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit was withdrawn voluntarily "for strategic reasons" and that he continues to believe the company is culpable, and he intends to "reset" the case and re-file the complaint.

We expect corporations and government agencies at the federal and state and local level to protect us from any serious health consequences related to coal ash disposal. Until recently, the federal government has left the details of regulating coal ash largely to state governments where the coal industry has great influence. The prevailing rule is that the ash is considered a non-harmful form of waste, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been pondering the validity of that definition for many years and officials now say they will update their thinking and issue a new rule by Dec. 19, 2014. The coal ash industry expects the feds to continue to classify coal ash as non-harmful. We'll see.

The coal ash industry has successfully resisted attempts to strengthen coal ash regulation, and they almost succeeded in slipping an amendment into Congressional legislation in 2012 that would have stripped EPA of the power to regulate coal ash now and in the future.

That was blocked by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and a handful of other environmentally concerned lawmakers. Three years earlier Boxer said she had to fight the Department of Homeland Security's attempts to prevent her and her staff from publicly disclosing the location of 44 hazardous coal ash sites identified by EPA across the nation.

Now, the EPA faces budget cuts and a reduced workforce.

"Addressing the threat from a changing climate is one of the greatest challenges of this and future generations," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the House Appropriations Committee this year. She said the agency's $7.9 billion budget request for 2015, which is $300 million below the current 2014 budget, "will provide the support we need to move forward by targeting real progress in priority areas: communities, climate change and air quality and chemical safety, and clean water."

Of course, a preponderance of scientific experts and political leaders are preoccupied these days over the extent to which coal combustion pushes us deeper into climate change and global warming, thereby posing a grave long-term threat to the health and safety of the entire planet of seven billion humans, a population expected to grow soon to nine billion if nature allows it.

Unfortunately, that distracting controversy makes it possible to overlook consequences already impacting a relatively small number of people who happen to live in communities victimized by side effects of ordinary day-to-day activities of massive coal ash disposal. That's the case even when people in those communities display a cluster of rare cancer cases, as acknowledged in Pennsylvania by federal health authorities. These victims think they are just being discarded as collateral damage, their suffering dismissed as merely an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of maximizing every available power source to continue driving an industrialized multi-trillion-dollar economy. Collateral damage?

"That was exactly my impression too," one closely involved scientist told me recently. Dr. Ronald Hoffman is a Professor at New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who has met some of those victims and who is an expert with 30 years of experience studying Myeloproliferative Disorders, which include polycythemia vera, the particular blood cancer identified in a cluster amid the coal ash dumps of the three adjoining Pennsylvania counties of Schuykill, Carbon and Luzerne.

Dr. Hoffman was invited in 2006 by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to look into the problem and he soon became convinced he was looking at "a possible public health danger to the people of Pennsylvania," as he testified in a Congressional hearing five years ago. He said the cancer cases in question were centered around EPA superfund sites and dumps of waste coal ash plants in the three counties and that his concern for the safety of the people living in the area only grew stronger as he gathered data. That seemed to displease senior officials at ATSDR, who attempted to intimidate him to get him to alter or change his findings that environmental contaminants may play a role in the cancers, Hoffman told the House Committee on Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight in 2009. Hoffman said he began to wonder "if there was some outside constituency who ASTDR was responding to that made them act like they just wanted this whole thing to go away."

Said Hoffman in 2009: "From my point of view, the mission of the Agency is to generate and communicate credible scientific information about the relationship between hazardous substances and adverse public health actions. My experience was, that in the case of polycythemia vera in eastern Pennsylvania, that the ATSDR did not accomplish this goal but only accomplished it eventually with relentless prodding to complete the needed investigations. My sense was if the Agency was left to themselves, they would have preferred to ignore the whole problem. ATSDR seemed to be committed to a course of ignoring and discrediting a mounting body of evidence which suggested the presence of a cluster of polycythemia vera patients in this tri-county area."

Science has limitations and precise answers are not always easy. Medical researchers agree that it is difficult, frequently impossible in fact, to determine with indisputable certainty that one particular form of environmental pollution caused any individual case of cancer, even when persuasive correlations exist between those cancers and exposure to that pollution. But that does not excuse those responsible for the pollution of their greater responsibility to protect people from the consequences.

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